Create your own smart home
The company boasts that the app “controls all of your lights, thermostats, devices, programs and irrigation system while on vacation or away from home”. The app also provides access to real-time information from the house’s devices, so any changes in readings can be acted upon.
It’s the sort of controller that prompted Google to launch its Android@Home project last year, touting Android phones as the logical controller for connected households. “We’d like to think of your entire home as an accessory,” Google’s Joe Britt said at the launch. “Android is the operating system for your home.”
The company’s purchase of Motorola has also been cited as evidence of plans in the home space, and the company has even announced plans for a connected lightbulb, which uses the GPS in your smartphone to switch the lights on and off as you walk in and out of rooms, for example.
The downside of such apps is that they won’t work with every system, and with an array of rival protocols and platforms, end users face a typical early adopter dilemma – which is the Betamax of the smart-home world?
The smart home has been one of those ‘next big things’ for years, but has been held back by a lack of standardisation
The smart home has been one of those “next big things” for years, but has been held back by a lack of standardisation, and devices that can’t talk to each other. X10, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Insteon and Universal Powerline Bus all have advocates among home networkers, and while some systems are compatible, others aren’t.
“The internet of things is a great concept, and in my mind this is all about connecting things together. That’s the single biggest challenge – at the moment it’s too hard,” says Gary Atkinson, ARM’s marketing director for embedded chips. “Anything that’s connected via ZigBee still needs to be paired, and it seems to take an age for these things to connect to each other.
“We’ve seen tremendous advances in app development due to smartphones. People know you can write an app, connect to a web API and get a working platform together pretty quickly, but adding hardware to those platforms is still a major challenge,” he adds. “There’s still no core central tenant of standardisation such as TCP/IP or HTML5 that people can get behind, and that’s slowing home automation down.”
In the UK DIY market, two main competing systems vie for attention, with the ageing X10 protocol supporting a greater number of devices, but the Z-Wave protocol, which uses wireless communication instead of X10’s power lines, the newer kid on the block.
“X10 is very easy to put in and get going, with a lot of modules out there for switches and sensors,” says Ivor Evans, director of uk-automation.co.uk, one of several sites selling equipment for DIY smart-home builders. “Z-Wave is newer, so there isn’t as wide a selection of bits and pieces, but there are more coming out.”
Home kits can control everything from garage doors and sprinklers to pet feeders and baby monitors. However, Evans warned that users should beware of trying to hop between systems, and avoid imports from the US, which aren’t compatible.
“If you pick a standard, you tend to choose one or the other – you don’t mix and match,” he says. “People get the idea they can buy-in X10 and Z-Wave products from the US, but you can’t, partly because of the voltage problem, and partly because the frequencies are different for Z-Wave. You can’t buy cheap kit in America and make it work over here.”
With starter kits, including sensors and controllers, from £130 for X10 systems, or £320 for Z-Wave, the smart home no longer requires a banker’s bonus to deploy. “The beauty is that they’re expandable from a small starting point. You don’t need a load of wiring through your property, and you can expand when you want to or can afford it,” Evans says.
Despite the issues with standards, there are precedents that have helped with entertainment distribution, and similar initiatives could bring the connected home closer.
“If we could get something like the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) for home networking, it would be an improvement,” says ARM’s Atkinson, who worked on the project when at Intel. “One of the elements was about getting devices to talk to one another and declare ‘I have content you can play’.